In Hiroshima on May 27, President Obama laid a wreath at the Peace Memorial there and, recalling the horrors of nuclear conflict and the devastating toll on that city’s civilians, called for a “moral revolution” in how the world thinks about war.
“We have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again,” he said.
He’s right, of course. And in the seven decades that have passed since that August day in 1945, the world has established institutions that have helped avert an even worse global conflagration than World War II.
But one could look at the news these days and wonder if the United Nations and other regional alliances have accomplished much beyond that. True, we avoided World War III, but there are a number of conflicts at the regional and national level that rightly should trouble world leaders’ sleep.
Perhaps as many as 400,000 dead in the Syrian civil war alone. In Yemen, at least 8,100 civilians have been hurt or killed since 2015. And in Afghanistan, the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimated the number of civilian deaths at more than 26,000, with more than 29,900 wounded.
Yet, despite the headlines of Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Gaza, Pakistan, Iraq, Mali, and other countries absent from the headlines, the overall level of conflict around the world has declined since World War II. For instance, from 2008 to 2014, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the number of armed conflicts around the globe declined from 63 to 42.
But—and this is a big “but”—the number of conflict fatalities rose from 56,000 to 180,000 over the same period. It’s even higher now given the conflict in Syria and Iraq. And mind you, that’s just fatalities; the impact of armed conflict isn’t measured merely by the number of people killed. There are hundreds of thousands injured and maimed, millions driven from their homes and uncounted multitudes harmed by the general breakdown in society and security. These include victims of sexual violence, psychological trauma, lack of schools, and loss of economic opportunities. According to the World Bank, “More than 1.5 billion people live in places affected by conflict and extreme violence.”
1.5 billion people.
Read that number again. That’s more than 20 percent of the entire human population. More than one in five men, women and children in 2016 are somehow harmed by conflict.
Those numbers, of course, include soldiers as well as civilians, and it’s difficult to estimate what the breakdown is. Some studies have stated that 90 percent of those harmed in conflict are civilians. Others say it’s lower. Whatever the percentage is, we here at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) consider it unconscionable.
In an ideal world, perhaps the one President Obama wants us to imagine, there would be no war. No civilians (or anyone) would be forced to flee their homes like 11.4 million displaced Syrians have been forced to. But that world doesn’t exist. And while sophisticated weapons like Predator drones and GPS-guided bombs are often the subjects of protests, those killed by small arms and homemade explosive devices are still just as dead.
“We see around the world today how even the crudest rifles and barrel bombs can serve up violence on a terrible scale,” Obama said. “We must change our mind-set about war itself.”
We here at CIVIC couldn’t agree more, Mr. President, and we’re grateful to hear our organization’s governing philosophy expressed so eloquently by a world leader with the power to do something to help civilians caught in the crossfire. We believe preventing harm to civilian men, women, and children, protecting them, and making amends when they are harmed should be at the center of not only US war planning, but everyone. We hope Obama’s words go beyond just rhetoric, and we at CIVIC will advocate for civilians until concern for them is so central to conflict that there is less likelihood of going to war in the first place.